“Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Complete Series” is newly available on DVD.
I first became aware of the animated “Avatar: The Last Airbender” Nickelodeon series when I noticed my younger children, even the toddler, running around striking martial-arts poses and shouting about “bending.” The question “What kind of bender would you want to be?” kept coming up. When I discovered that the older children also admired the series (not to be confused with the roundly panned live-action adaptation of M. Night Shyamalan or the similarly named 2009 James Cameron film), I knew I had to watch it.
There is a sense in which “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is for my children in part what “Star Wars” was for my generation: a new and enthralling mythology about a young hero with a mysterious power slowly learning to channel that power to fight against a tyrannical empire.
Another important link between “Avatar” and “Star Wars” is the Asian cinematic influence on both franchises. George Lucas was particularly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai period films, known in Japanese as jidaigeki films, a term Lucas borrowed for his Jedi knights. “Avatar” is most influenced by anime or Japanese animation, notably Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Both are influenced by the high-flying heroes of Hong Kong wuxia martial-arts movies, a genre introduced to Western audiences in Ang Lee’s art-house homage “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) — itself a notable influence on “Avatar.”
Lucas’ inspiration was to blend these Asian period influences with space opera, drawing at the same time on other sources from Westerns and WWII air-war films to Tolkien and T.H. White. “Avatar” is less generically eclectic than “Star Wars;” it’s basically a high-fantasy martial-arts epic, though with occasional nods to other genres, including Westerns.
“Avatar’s” inspiration was “bending.” In “Avatar,” the human race is divided into four “nations” that are associated with the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air — and specially gifted members of each tribe, called “benders,” study one of four styles of martial art entailing control over that tribe’s element. Thus, Waterbenders use tai chi moves to manipulate water, Firebenders use Northern Shaolin kung fu to manipulate fire, and so forth.
Like “Star Wars,” “Avatar” creates a constellation of diverse cultures, though on a planetary rather than a galactic scale, with Indian, Polynesian, Inuit, and other cultural references as well as, of course, a lot of China and Japan.
“Avatar” is also much more specific than “Star Wars” in its spirituality. Lucas drew on Eastern and Western religious traditions — his Jedi knights dress like Franciscan friars, but there are Taoist and Buddhist strands in their teaching — but the Force is sufficiently indefinite to serve as a metaphor for a wide range of religious perspectives. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit survives the death of his body, and he is joined in the afterlife by Yoda and Luke’s father Anakin, but how life after death works in “Star Wars” is vague.
By contrast, “Avatar” emphatically commits to the idea of reincarnation, at least for the Avatar, a unique hero named Aang who is capable of bending all four elements. (Because of this, I’ve had conversations with our kids about why we don’t believe in reincarnation in the real world, though we can imagine worlds in which God created things differently.) It is unclear what happens to other people when they die, even benders, as with non-Jedi in “Star Wars.”
A recurring motif in “Avatar” and its various influences, including Miyazaki, “Crouching Tiger,” and “Star Wars,” is liberation from the constraints of gravity. The Air Nomads are (or were) the highest and most spiritual of all the nations (apparently their members, unlike the other nations, were all adepts). Although the “Avatar cycle” of reincarnation takes the Avatar through each of the four nations in turn, it’s no accident that for their story, the creators chose to make Aang an Airbender. Airbending comes naturally to Aang; it’s the other elements he must learn to master.
Aang can ride the winds he generates himself with the aid of a hand-held glider that doubles as a bo staff. (Notably, in the “Avatar state,” a state of transfiguration in which the Avatar channels far greater power than he normally has, Aang can fly even without his glider.) Aang also has a special companion, a giant, six-legged “flying bison” named Appa that looks a little like a distant relative of the Cat Bus in Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro” and has the ability to soar through the air under his own power.
Jedi knights, like the mystic Wudan warriors of “Crouching Tiger,” don’t quite fly, but they aren’t bound by gravity in the normal way. The Jedi can leap great distances; they can also levitate objects, as Earthbenders can levitate rocks and chunks of earth. In Ang Lee’s hands, the Wudan warriors’ freedom from gravity becomes something poetic and beautiful; the monk-like hero Li Mu Bai, the disciplined heroine Yu Shu Lien, and the passionate, reckless antihero Jen move through the air with balletic grace, running on nothing or skipping over rooftops or up walls with only the barest surface contact. (Mu Bai, the most spiritual of all the film’s characters, soars with the least effort or movement.)
Flight is a major theme in Miyazaki’s films, from the titular heroines of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989), who use a glider and a broomstick, respectively, to the unaided flight of Haku in “Spirited Away” (2001) and Howl in “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) — the latter striding grandly through the air as if on some unseen surface, much like the air-running Wudan warriors in “Crouching Tiger.”
The cinematic evocation of any kind of flight, aided or unaided, can be exhilarating. The other “Avatar,” Cameron’s film, offers a thrillingly visceral depiction of riding the back of a great dragon-like beast; DreamWorks’ animated “How to Train Your Dragon,” released in the same year, does the same. A similar motif can be found in classical mythology in the winged horse Pegasus, among others, while the myth of Icarus offers a cautionary warning that the aspiration to fly may be hubris for humans; that the sky is for gods to tread, not men.
Still, the idea of flight won’t go away, and has rebounded in our era in countless forms, from Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to Superman and Neo. It seems to speak to something deep in the human psyche, something that fires our imaginations and haunts our dreams. There’s something especially powerful about human characters who are able simply to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and rise or step into the air.
In Catholic hagiography, a number of saints are reported to have displayed gifts of levitation or flight, most famously St. Joseph of Cupertino (“The Reluctant Saint”), but also St. Gemma Galgani and St. Martin de Porres. These phenomena are believed to be foreshadowings or anticipations of the divine qualities of the resurrected and glorified human body — specifically, the qualities traditionally known in scholastic theology as “subtlety” and “agility” — possessed by Jesus after Easter Sunday, and to be possessed by all the redeemed in the world to come.
St. Paul describes the resurrected body as a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), a term that exegetes and theologians tell us means not an immaterial or ghostlike body, but a body not pitted against the spirit (or the Spirit), but entirely in harmony with and subordinate to it.
As the resurrected Jesus was able to come and go at will despite locked doors and so forth, and eventually rose from the Earth and ascended into heaven, so Christians believe that in the life of the resurrection, movement will be as effortless and unencumbered as thought. If the myth of Icarus was a warning not to aspire to godlike status, Christian faith tells us that we do become, body and soul, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) — that we are to be “divinized,” in the bold idiom characteristic of Eastern theology.
From this perspective, for Catholics and other Christians, the powerful appeal of the image of Aang or Kiki mounting into the sky (notwithstanding the handheld implements used to channel their powers), or of Li Mu Bai and Jen floating amid the topmost branches of the bamboo forest, or of Superman himself, may be seen as an imaginative, mythic glimpse of something we express each week in the words of the Nicene Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”